"I know all players today approach the game in a businesslike fashion," says Vancouver Canucks general manager Pat Quinn. "After all, they're dealing with an asset that happens to be themselves. But his strategy seems to have backfired. I'm like the rest of the fans out there. I didn't like what I saw."
The Kings didn't exactly discourage anyone from putting that spin on the situation. During a Kings-Rangers broadcast from Madison Square Garden in January, longtime Kings play-by-play announcer Bob Miller quoted a New York Daily News column: "And when the Rangers got swept against the Flyers last spring and looked too old and too slow, [Mark] Messier did not go looking for another contender. He did not look to force a trade or beat a contract." According to the Los Angeles Times, Miller did not get around to reading the part of the column that pointed out that Messier had held out and missed training camp in 1994 in an attempt to negotiate a new deal.
The upshot was that Gretzky, playing just 18 minutes a game for a terrible team and resigned to a change, was looking childish. "Why does it seem that the halo has started to tilt?" wrote an Edmonton Journal columnist. And a relatively unblemished career was being examined for behavioral pockmarks. Remember after the Kings lost to the Canadiens in the '93 finals, and in what should have been a celebration of the Cup's 100th anniversary, he hogged the spotlight with his maybe-I'll-retire comment? Notice how he maintains a generous coterie of writers and broadcasters, how he seems to organize trades for friends and former teammates? He is shrewd, well aware (too aware, some say) of his accomplishments and his impact on the game. Wouldn't you be if, midway through your career, a former employer—the Edmonton Oilers in this case—erected a statue in your honor? In the hours before his trade was announced to the rest of the world on Feb. 27, Gretzky began dialing up hockey writers on both sides of the border, giving about a dozen of them the pride of a "scoop." A courtesy to old friends (not all of them were old friends, though) or just politicking?
Gretzky admits he's hurt by all this, but in his newfound excitement of playing alongside Brett Hull on the Blues, he hardly appeared defeated by public sentiment. After his first game with the Blues, in which he scored a breakaway goal in a 2-2 tie against Vancouver, he was babbling like a schoolkid, talking about the playofflike buzz of playing for St. Louis. Hockey was fun again.
"I want to win," he said last Friday, standing outside a practice rink in Vancouver. "To criticize me for stepping forward to complain about mediocrity, well, for people to accept losing in life, that's not right."
Still, Gretzky says he came very close to doing just that, "to taking the comfortable way out." Never mind that the Kings had failed again to upgrade the team in the off-season; he would have re-signed if the club had offered a contract extension as recently as November. He and his wife, Janet, had built a new home on a golf course north of Los Angeles. His kids (Paulina, 7, Ty, 5, and Trevor, 3) were happy in school. Gretzky liked everything about living in the glamour capital of this continent. "I could go into a restaurant," he says, "and I'm the Number 6 celebrity. I wouldn't be bothered." He could have remained an institution, a civic monument fortified by loyalty and history.
However, as the season dragged on, Gretzky began to understand his looming leverage. The Kings were hopeful of signing him; on the day of the trade, they offered him a long-term contract that would have retained him in an executive capacity after he retired. Gretzky could have been a King for life. Yet the team was equally determined to forge ahead with a youth movement. "I might have seen a Stanley Cup as a King," Gretzky says, "but I would have been on the golf course, not the ice."
Meanwhile, the man who ushered in the Gretzky era in Los Angeles wonders if hockey can survive there without the Great One's star power. "This is not Vancouver," McNall says. "The people won't just show up." McNall is sympathetic to the new owners but thinks they might be missing the big picture. After all, Gretzky is the guy who filled the Forum and who assured TV executives and cereal makers that hockey was a coast-to-coast sport. "He changed the face of hockey," McNall says. "Not only by bringing in expansion but by bringing in TV contracts with ESPN and Fox. He was instrumental in making this a major sport."
Gretzky still has his supporters, people who think that he is much more than a marketing icon. And he still has the kind of on-ice charisma to generate interest wherever he goes. He'll have that for a long time, no matter the sniping.
All the same, though, there is that sniping. Unfortunate reservations about his character will haunt one of sport's last good guys, maybe forever. There could be a dawning awareness that over the last 7½ years Gretzky was good for hockey in general but not for the Kings in particular—that he left them no better than when he found them. The end of the Gretzky era, with its attendant ugliness, ought to remind any superstar who would skate effortlessly into history that he should safeguard, really conserve, his reservoir of goodwill. Because he'll need every drop on the way out.